I’ve never been much of the praying type.
When I was a child and everyone would bow their heads in prayer, I would look around at their faces. I think I was looking to see if they were really praying or just going through the motions; a sort of primitive check for authenticity. I barely joined in. Even as an adult and a lay preacher within various evangelical churches, I was always seriously deficient in having a regular prayer life. Maybe I felt inauthentic myself in trying to make up some words. Maybe I just did not theologically understand how prayer was supposed to work. Maybe I was just undisciplined and didn’t really care. Honestly, it was a little of all of the above.
Since my involvement with the Apostolic Johannite Church, there have been a number of “mundane” Christian activities that have had new life breathed into them. My gallivanting through the abyss of the occult and my dalliances with atheism have became a long winding story of me rejecting everything I was raised to believe only to come back to it in a dramatically new way. I suppose it is like the old adage, “If you love it, let it go. If it really loves you back, it will come back.” I left Christ, He let me go, and I came back. However, I came back on my own terms, not as an Evangelical Protestant but as an Independent Sacramentalist, an Esotericist, a Christian, a Gnostic, and a Johannite. All that said, prayer is one of those things that I feel I am seeing clearly for the first time. It still feels strange to institute something as mainstream as a “prayer list” but I definitely see the advantage now.
First of all, my occult studies have taught me the power of intentionality and the Will. What is magick if not a way of materializing your desire through a symbol set? What is prayer if not magick? Think about it: You invoke a higher being, whether an angel or saint, by creating a ritual space. This space could be a candle-lit altar or just kneeling with a bowed head and closed eyes as a physical symbol of submission. I particularly like the act of pressing the hands together in the traditional stance of prayer. It is archaic and quaint but really sets the stage for the act of invoking the Divine. Once this ritual space (however simplistic or ornate) is made, you connect. It may be begging for help, seeking clarity for a decision, or simply saying thank you. Whether you meditate quietly or speak it aloud, you want this intention to be made manifest. The similarities to various occult processes are obvious, even curses and hexes.
How is prayer like a curse? When someone is cursed, the one hexing them wishes ill to befall them. They bind that hatred or ill will into a fetish or perform a ritual or poison an object or person against them. They take steps to get that pain placed upon their foe through metaphysical means. Now consider a prayer. Is it not a “curse in reverse?” You have love for them or good will. You attempt to call blessings upon them or set holy angels on a course to aid and comfort them. The easiest and most basic of the various means that this “reversed cursing” can be done is through prayer.
While there is a precedent for so called imprecatory prayers, I don’t think that it really resonates with most modern Christian Gnostics to call down hellfire on your enemies in the Name of God. Other than a few extremists, I would argue it does not resonate with most Christians either. Given that, almost all prayer tends to fall into two broad categories: thankfulness and requests. That second category is broken down into requests for others and requests for yourself. So you ask, you receive, you thank the Powers That Be for the gift, and then repeat the cycle. Some even give thanks before they receive to show their faith. Regardless, this creates two positive effects. The first of these is humility. Asking for forgiveness or for anything for that matter requires you to admit that you cannot do it all by yourself. You acknowledge that there are higher things than you. Of course, as Johannites, this does not render us riddled with guilt at our perceived “filthiness.” Properly understood, God dwells within Us and We dwell within God. Ontologically, on some level, we are One. However, we all strive to be greater than we presently are when measured in other ways, whether that is forgiveness, thoughtfulness, compassion, or temperance. Plus, it is certainly easier to be a good friend or family member if you realize that you are not “all that” and have some growing to do. Furthermore, by praying for others, you foster goodwill toward them. Jesus said to pray for our enemies including those that “despitefully use you.” These are your real enemies. The ones that want to make your life a living Hell. At the end of the day, our Love must trump their hate and prayer is powerful catalyst for that. It is difficult, and perhaps even impossible, to hate someone that you genuinely pray for regularly. And I don’t mean those passive aggressive “bless their heart” kind of prayers. I mean a real prayer that despite all of these temporal reasons I have to hate them back, I genuinely want them to be happy and blessed and to grow as I do. You can’t curse someone when your words are of constant blessing. I can speak from experience that if done regularly, your attitude towards your enemy will improve and you will come to see how small their revenges and insults really are. It takes you closer to that ideal of “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Furthermore, regular prayer of any type builds a third virtue: Discipline. Discipline is a virtue that every Gnostic, every Christian, every Occultist, every gym goer or dieter, and I would argue, any human person, needs in excess if they are going to succeed. Prayer is a very solid way to build a lifestyle of discipline for one’s self. On the one hand, it requires so little but on the other, it can be so difficult to remember and push yourself to do. In fact, you could cheat for years (as I did) and no one would ever know. Think about it. If you don’t diet and say you do, you get fatter or at least don’t lose weight. If you say you quit smoking but didn’t, then four flights of stairs will reveal your lies. But if you say “I’ll pray for you” and don’t actually do it, there is no scenario in which this is definitively proven. This is a discipline built upon personal responsibility and personal accountability. The only evidence that you do it or you don’t is spiritual, not physical. It is literally “out of this world.”
Also, let’s not leave the science out of the discussion either. While science is very hit or miss when it comes to it’s assessment of prayer and it’s effects there have been a number of instances where having a large group of people focus their thoughts towards a situation seems to change the situation. Maybe it has some impact on the quantum level. Maybe it is just bad technique. Hard to say, but there seems to be at least an anecdotal precedent for the effectiveness of prayer. Maybe asking God for help actually gets you help? Strange huh?
Finally, prayer creates opportunities to turn your heart, mind, and soul toward the Divine glory above. If we are imprisoned in this world of flesh, prayer is our letters to and from our family, the window we look out to see a bright teeming world beyond the prison walls, and our hope of parole or reprieve. Prayer is attempting to connect with beings and places that are in a sense “more real” than the illusions we call the “real world.” It is our power supply and we are weaker without it.
So given all these positive benefits only one thing remains: What do we pray about? Well, the cavalier response would be “Everything” which, while technically true, doesn’t help anyone. So I offer this simple advice: start very personal and very small. Pray for guidance in your own life, blessings and healings for those you know personally, and expand from there. Now, of course, there is plenty of reason to pray for big picture items out in the larger world but I also say that you should focus the bulk of your efforts on things that you most deeply care about. Everyone can throw a blithe prayer for “All the hungry children in the world” and I don’t think for a minute that we don’t care about this and similar things, but it’s important that you feel it in your gut. There is a lot of horror in the world and you will get fatigued and overwhelmed trying to pray a real, heartfelt prayer for every tragedy that ever befalls the human race. As a “prayer warrior” don’t feel guilty in picking your battles so to speak. You can’t actually pray for everything or your prayer list will look like the front page of the Drudge Report. You are human, after all, and you can’t pour your entire heart and soul into every misery or you will spiral down rather than build others up. Most commonly, you’ll just stop praying. That’s why I say, start small. You always are keenly aware of your own problems or blessings so use that as your foundation. Then make sure to move to praying for others around you. Pray for the big events too but stick to the ones that jerk your heart. Never offer the generic “thoughts and prayers” response just because you feel obligated to. I would argue that inauthentic prayer is worse than no prayer at all because then you are deceiving yourself. It’s like eating a Snickers bar and pretending it is an avocado. Start small but never neglect to “go big” when you are lead to.
In closing, prayer builds discipline. It builds a sense of good will toward your fellow man. It gives glimpses of the world beyond and allows us to communicate with its inhabitants. So for these reasons, and the many others hinted at, I suggest that every member of St. John the Baptist Narthex make some form of regular prayer a part of their spiritual regimen.
I’ll be instituting a basic prayer list for the Narthex in the spirit of keeping things small. It will be shared with the private Facebook group in the interest of privacy. If anyone is interested in joining, just email me at [email protected] for details.
Bless you all and keep praying!